Transit System Taps Tech to Ease Commutes

Dallas Area Rapid Transit makes schedule information available in real time to riders.

Public-transit systems require major capital investments in vehicles and infrastructure, so operational changes tend to develop slowly and are rarely visible to customers. Consumer technology, on the other hand, evolves at a dizzying pace, and commuters want to be able to use their smartphones to enhance their ride experience.

Transit authority websites provide system maps, schedules, trip planning, destination highlights and so forth. As smartphones became ubiquitous, agencies re-engineered their websites to work with mobile devices. Third parties and agencies began to develop iOS and Android applications with varying degrees of usefulness and accuracy. Until recently, these services were passive and required the commuter to visit the website or the app; they also presented only static data, such as schedules and routes.

Consumer expectations of products and services have risen dramatically. Remember when we used to listen for a dial tone before using our phones? Or carried a toolkit in our car in case it broke down? Now we just expect everything to work, all the time, and that applies to public transit, too. The bus or train should be on time, connections must work smoothly and we should be able to get to our destination exactly as planned. For the most part, we can.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Sending a bus or train fleet out on schedule in the morning and adhering to that schedule for the remainder of the day requires a lot of effort and coordination. Unfortunately, traffic and weather can cause occasional service delays and interruptions, which can be frustrating for riders. Transit agencies have discovered that if we can forewarn riders of service disruptions and keep them informed about delays affecting their commute, they're much more tolerant of the situation. That's where technology helps.

GPS-enabled automatic vehicle location systems and wireless communications keep operations fully aware of performance. It makes sense for agencies to tap social media and deploy other systems to provide riders with up-to-the-minute information about schedule deviations. By encouraging riders to subscribe to agencies' Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and other feeds, users can learn about delays and choose to remain at their desks or the coffee shop for a few minutes longer instead of waiting at a bus stop or train station.

220 thousand Number of passengers served daily by DART

SOURCE: Dallas Area Rapid Transit

At Dallas Area Rapid Transit, we build out these capabilities in several ways. On the basic side, we are placing a label on all of our bus stops that contains instructions for how to text a short-code phone number to learn the next arrival time of buses for each route that serves the stop. We're also developing a short code to DART Police so that riders can inconspicuously send a text alert in the event of a disturbance.

On the more complex side, we have a "Where's my DART stop?" page on our mobile website that uses the GPS capability of the phone to identify where the person is and deliver a map with nearby stops, including a street view for easy recognition. Clicking on a stop shows the bus routes that serve it, and a further click shows the predicted arrival time of the next bus. Yet another click will show the route map so the rider can plan his or her trip.

DART has delivered these rider tools for only a modest investment, mostly for licenses and communications services, using Internet-savvy internal developers, and tools and services readily available on the web. We have launched an awareness campaign — "On the Go. In the Know" — with posters, YouTube videos and other media to encourage the use of the tools. We receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from our customers, and we're convinced that the tools help us retain current riders and will eventually attract new riders to the system.

Apr 02 2012